The Story Behind The Story Of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt

by Blake Hester on Aug 20, 2016 at 08:25 AM

Any mention of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is quickly followed by mention of its scale – be that in terms of its story or its world. Wild Hunt’s script is roughly 450,000 words long. Its literature (books, bestiary, etc.) add another 250,000 words. Combining all of the different world states, the game has 36 different endings. Both its main story arc and side quests provide about 50 hours of content each – if you’re rushing – though it’s easy to spend upwards of 200 hours with the game. Wild Hunt’s two expansions, Hearts of Stone and Blood and Wine, add another combined 50 hours of content. 

CD Projekt Red senior writer Karolina Stachyra says that incredible scale was planned from the beginning. Wild Hunt was always going to be an open world and its story was always going to be massive. We recently spoke to Stachyra about the process of writing Wild Hunt, how Projekt Red crafted such a large narrative, and how it is moving forward after finishing protagonist Geralt of Rivia’s story.

Ambiguous, But By Design  
The inspirations for Wild Hunt are surprisingly intimate, close to home. When asked to define what exactly makes a Witcher game, Stachyra first points to comic writer Alan Moore’s quote, “Artists use lies to tell the truth.” 

“We tell fictional stories, but they’re about us, about our society and about our problems,” she says. “They’re about long-lost love, about hatred, about lust, or envy. Racism, social inequality, or terrorism. And Geralt is never a side until the player chooses he becomes one. We never impose on you.” With each choice, Stachyra says, the player gets to know something about themselves.

Those elements have always been a key part of The Witcher’s universe and the life of its characters, both in CD Projekt Red’s Witcher trilogy and the original series of books by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski. “Life is brutal,” Stachyra says. “Sapkowski’s world is brutal and so is our game.” However, she adds, this darkness often gives birth to humanity. The worse off the world is, the more we fight for it to be something better. 

In Wild Hunt, CD Projekt Red tried to mimic the non-black and white nature of life with its choices. As Stachyra says, “Just watch the news, even the simplest problems have multiple answers, all depending on your point of view.” It purposefully made each decision difficult, and outcomes, more often than not, never what the player expected. They may decide what they think is best for a family, only for it to end in the suicide of the father. Or Geralt may turn his back on someone, only for that person to stab him in his own.

That’s the point of Wild Hunt’s story: Everything is ambiguous. Nothing’s ever concrete, everything is subject to change based on the player’s decisions. Writing a game this open required all hands on deck, with everyone bringing their own influences and inspirations to the table. “Everyone works on everything,” Stachyra says.

She cites work that matches the gritty world of the Witcher, such as Game of Thrones, but also points to some less obvious elements of Polish culture and literature. One such example is a customary Slavic feast called Dziady, later adopted into Polish culture as the Christian Zaduszki feast, which pays tribute to the dead. Portions of the Polish poet Adam Asnyk’s poem Między nami nic nie było is also spoken by the Olgierd brothers in the Hearts of Stone expansion. 

“We thought it would be extremely cool if the younger generation and people of other cultures could have a glimpse at it, just crafted in a more contemporary and approachable fashion,” Stachyra explains.

Other ideas arose from casual conversation. “Many quests landed in the game because somebody said ‘***, [it] would be cool if we did that’ during lunch,” Stachyra continues. In fact, one of Wild Hunt’s biggest features was created this way: The in-game card game, Gwent. Designed over a weekend, became a key side activity and fan favorite. It’s now getting a standalone game.

With inspirations in check, CD Projekt Red’s next step with Wild Hunt was both creating and adding quality to its massive world. 

For how CD Projekt Red created its ambitious quests, continue on to page two. 

A Talking Roach – Creating Memorable Quests  
Prior to Wild Hunt, CD Projekt Red had never made an open-world game, especially one as ambitious as The Witcher 3. But it had a main rule of thumb to guide its creation: everything had to have meaning. 

“[Every quest] has to have some sort of impact on the player,” Stachyra says. “We said ‘no’ to any sort of fetch quests, as they don’t provide any substance to the game – they’re only there to fill the space and that makes no sense.” 

When beginning a quest, CD Projekt Red comes up with a set of baseline statements that it will use to define everything else later on. It then begins adding to the quest based on those statements. “When we have a rough draft, we go into various directions – sometimes inventing stuff bottom-up, [like] ‘I wonder what would Roach say if he could to talk?’ and see how we could make that happen. Sometimes we go top-down, [like] it would be cool to have this fairytale land gone wrong?” 

Both of these examples were seen in the Blood and Wine expansion, the latter being a fairytale world Geralt found himself in that had been flipped on its head – where the Big Bad Wolf is an alcoholic and Rapunzel has hung herself with her own long hair. 

In a game where there’s an equal amount of main and side content, every secondary quest in Wild Hunt needed to be “almost” as good as a primary, whether the quest was crucial or complimentary. CD Projekt Red spent a lot of time planning for the different ways a player might approach a quest, but also made sure players never lost sight of Geralt’s main goal: finding Ciri. 

Offsetting that aforementioned brutality, prevalent in most of its main quests, were numerous side quests introducing humor, forcing Geralt, generally stoic and harsh, into situations outside his comfort zone.

These quests have Geralt dancing and playing drinking games, wearing masks and starring in plays – giving the player brief respite from quests full of murder, politics, and war. “We just like things like that because they break the mold and help us repel monotony,” Stachyra adds.

CD Projekt Red also relied heavily on environmental storytelling in Wild Hunt, such as lynched bodies littering the side of the road or candy decorating Crookback Bog, luring children towards the cauldron of the The Ladies of the Woods. “Symbolism and playing with connotations are very important for us and we frequently use them as tools to evoke emotions,” Stachyra says.

With its world set, it’s a matter of making sure it’s believable, immersive, and, of course, well done. CD Projekt Red takes nothing lightly. “In a game as big as The Witcher, immersion plays a defining role as you can’t fully invest yourself in a world you don’t believe in,” Stachyra explains. The same goes for the game’s consequences. Stachyra says she thinks there’s a big problem to seriously role-play a character if a player can just load a save to see the other outcome. 

Can CD Projekt Red Ever Go Back To Making Linear Games?
Wild Hunt was CD Projekt Red’s first foray into making an open-world game. The first two Witcher games were linear affairs. After setting a high precedent for both itself and perhaps the game industry at large in terms of how to craft worlds and narratives, can the developer ever go back, or does it see it as a step back for itself? According to Stachyra, it all depends on the story. “I can’t answer in the studio’s name, because that’s not up to me, but I personally think that telling a story is telling a story,” she says. “You can tell a linear story in an open world and a nonlinear story in a closed world. I think as long as the story is good, as long as it treats gamers as adults and evokes real emotions, I’ll be happy to write it.”

The choices and consequences of Wild Hunt, Stachyra continues, let players “actually touch the essence of what RPGs are: role-playing games. That’s one of the biggest values of our approach – even [though] you play a predefined character, there is such thing as your Geralt or my Geralt.” 

But, with so much going on, it begs the question: how did CD Projekt Red maintain Wild Hunt’s quality? How did it craft a story that was entertaining for 200 hours, that also makes complete sense from point A to point Z? For CD Projekt Red, communication and testing is key.

“We don’t have any technological backend or dedicated tool for [keeping the game’s story organized],” Stachyra says. “We talk a lot. We talk to the point of being somewhat of a story hive mind. Most of us know what the other would say to ‘this’ or ‘that’, and we’ve grown to rely on this fact a lot.”

“Each part of the game – and I mean this literally – is replayed hundreds of times by Konrad Tomaszkiewicz, our game director, and Adam Badowski, the studio head,” Stachyra says. “This includes other leads as well. If something doesn’t click, they ask us to change [it].” If it can’t make something work, it’s cut from the game. 

That quality-first mentality created a game met with near universal acclaim. Wild Hunt sold over six million copies in its first six weeks and won over 800 awards, over 250 of those being Game Of The Year Awards from outlets such as Game Informer and the Game Developers’ Conference. In March 2016, CD Projekt Red updated its numbers, announcing the game had sold over 10 million copies.

Yet, despite all that acclaim, the developer still wasn’t done. It released two expansions for Wild Hunt, each receiving similar acclaim from fans and media. Hearts of Stone and Blood and Wine were both created because Projekt Red had “many more stories to tell,” Stachyra says, explaining a lot of ideas that didn’t make it into the main game ultimately ended up in the expansions. 

The latter of the two, Blood and Wine, is notable for many reasons. Already a massive game, it added an entire new territory, the wine country of Toussaint. It also addressed a lot of the game’s UI issues and added new mechanics to the game. But, above all else, it was CD Projekt Red’s goodbye to its flagship character, Geralt of Rivia.

Moving On From The White Wolf
The Wither 3: Wild Hunt is an undeniable success story for the independent studio – a culmination of nearly a decade’s worth of work telling Geralt’s story over three games. But now, it’s time for CD Projekt Red to move on. Its goodbyes have been said, and its eyes have been set on the future, its next game, Cyberpunk 2077, inspired by the pen-and-paper role-playing game Cyberpunk 2020. Though not much has been revealed about the game, it’s generated quite a bit of buzz around itself – especially in the wake of Wild Hunt.

But that doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty of time for reflection.  

“It was a bittersweet experience,” Stachyra says. “On one hand, we had been with Geralt for very, very long, since [forever] for some. We’ve grown together and evolved from a small studio in Poland to, well, whatever we are now. And, along with our commitment, Geralt was the center part of all of that.”

What the future holds for the independent Polish studio remains to be seen. But what it has achieved thus far is impressive, ambitious, and surprising. That said, the time is right for CD Projekt Red to move on from Geralt and his trilogy. “The romantic parts of our souls want to explore other stuff, something entirely different, and Cyberpunk 2077 addresses that need,” Stachyra says.

Stachyra noted she doesn’t believe there is such a thing as a good or bad ending. “There’s only your ending,” she says. Though it was in reference to Wild Hunt, it feels plenty applicable to CD Projekt Red, a studio more than in control of its own destiny and a studio, much like it wants its players to do, forging its own path.